Growing up in Murree House in St. James’s Road, London I remember our neighbours distinctly. Not all of them were close enough to call family, but you would always say hello to them when you met. There would always be the small talk and how so-and-so was doing. And if there was some form of emergency, or you just needed an extra hand to hold the ladder, you could call on them and they would help if they could.
The earliest neighbours I recall were the ones that lived on all three sides of our house, the Leatherdales to one side, the Keenes on the other, and at the bottom of the garden there was Mr. Totem whose family had been there for what I assumed was at least a hundred years. There was, in fact, a fourth adjoining neighbour – the Roters. Their oversized back lawn touched one corner of our lot, in the furthest area from our house, by the walnut tree that we were allowed to climb during playtime. The Roters had children that were vaguely the same age as me and my brothers and so we had an iron play ladder that had hooks on one end as if it was from an old galleon. Its length, and those hooks, was perfect and it was perpetually propped up against the wooden fence that the two families shared. That way the children could come and go into each other’s play areas without travelling the long distance via the streets.
We often had to go and knock on the Leatherdale’s front door to ask if we could retrieve our ball. Mr. and Mrs. Leatherdale were always very pleasant about those interruptions. Many years later when I had returned to look after my elderly parents and the old house my mom was forever looking in on Mrs. Leatherdale, who was now a widow and suffering from dementia. My mother made sure I visited to say hello, before her mind was completely erased by Alzheimer’s. She was on the verge of complete mental annihilation but she had vague memories, and of course, “hadn’t I grown.” She was hospitalized soon after. A For Sale sign now appeared outside her house. My mom, herself, slipped into dementia within months of Mrs. Leatherdale sudden departure. I read recently that Mrs. Leatherdale had passed.
As for Mr. Keene, I have few memories of him, except he was old and kept to himself. I believe he had a wife but my memory of her is that of a ghost. I don’t think Mr. Keene, who spent his time manicuring his perfect back lot, appreciated all the playful screams and shouts from our rambunctious brood playing in the overgrown grass that doubled as jungle camps on summer days. What I do remember specifically is climbing up on our old rusty coal bunkers to pluck apples from his luscious tree whose branches spilled over to our side of the fence. It was called “scrumping” (stealing apples). We had three apple trees in our own garden, but Mr. Keene’s apples were bigger and sweeter than our September harvest. And far more delicious spiked with guilty pleasure. When the Keene’s moved on (to heaven I presumed) my dad told me that the they had an “arrangement”. She lived in one part of the house, he in the other, they hardly talked to each other, and that’s how they got on with life. I was amazed at this nugget of gossip that gave me my first worth of understanding of how life was more complicated behind those wooden front doors that I passed every day.
The Keene’s house was sold to the Birches, and their family and ours became very close. The parents were from a slightly younger generation than my parents, if fact they were just slightly older than my oldest brother. So there was this wonderful relationship at all levels of interaction. Their three children (Gary, Trevor, and Clare) were close in age to me. We were not necessarily great friends, but we were trusting of each other and good company when we did get together. A fourth child, Adam, was born a few years after their arrival in the street. In later years, Adam would remain friends with my parents, helping out whenever needed, after all of us children moved away. He, too, would make a career in the music business and visit me when in Toronto, extending that unique connection across thousands of kilometers and five decades.
Many nights the children would sleep at our house if for some reason their parents were away. Each family had left a spare front door key with each other in case someone was locked out. The two sets of parents became even closer as they aged. They remain in contact to this day, even though my parents have since moved into a care home. My dad will call Eileen Birch to talk about their partners, each of whom is slipping into mental darkness. But they, the mentally fit, are being tethered by time and limited by atrophy. The telephone remains the most neighbourly dimension of their life as if it were a chat over the back garden fence.
Past the Birches there was Mrs. Male, Mrs. Orton, and Mrs. Sedgewick. I hadn’t thought of it till I wrote this down but I guess they were all widows. There were sons involved but no other male influence, well, not that I was aware of. Those women had all lived in the road before my mom bought the house in 1951. So they were very much the senior influence on the street. Mrs. Male was ancient even then, but she was always there with a smile and an invite to come in for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mrs. Orton was the village historian (Hampton Hill was still considered a village by many of the era even though it was fast being absorbed in to Greater London) and she wrote the definitive history of the community. For some reason, I have a memory (it may be false) of her giving me pages of a continuation of that history that was never published as if I too would become a local historian. That may just be my imagination, but the thought is worth a point. I have made a living out of history, more pop than academic, but still stories worth telling.
Mrs. Sedgewick was quiet and alone. In her final years her son Bill, a man in his 50s, came to live with her and look after her needs. He bought a golden Labrador dog called Lucky, full of frenzied excitement and potential aggression, possibly just protecting his mistress, which was his other job beyond just company. Mrs. Sedgewick’s door was always left ajar and Lucky would come bounding down the front path barking at passerbys, his feet propped up on the top of the closed wooden gate, his head reaching out to the sidewalk and would continue to bark long after the individual had passed. Bill looked after his mother right to her death and then inherited the house and Lucky the dog. He died shortly of a heart attack.
On the other side of the road further down was Wayside. This old house was actually owned by St. James’s church, which, besides owning this beautiful old house, anchored the road and gave it its name. Wayside would double as a Sunday school during those early years. Our family was only loosely connected to the church; we were never religious orientated. Other than special occasions my only recollection of being in the church with regularity was during my years as a cub scout when on the last Sunday of every month when the cubs, the scouts, the girl guides, the Brownies, and the troops’ various leaders gathered at the bottom of the road for church parade. With flags flying we would all march up St. James’s Road and the neighbours would come out of their houses to watch before many of them took their place in the pews. It was always an honour to be named as flag bearer, just like in the Olympics. I believe I was asked more than once to lead our troop – the 3rd Hampton Hill Cubs all dressed in our green heavy sweaters decorated with our numerous badges, caps on our heads, and yellow and brown neckerchiefs dangling down secured around our necks with a toggle. Sometimes a band would lead the march particularly on special days like Remembrance Sundays. Such days were a sight to behold on leafy, Victorian St. James’s Road. Years later, while doing research on our house and road, I discovered the role the original owners of the house played in the development of the parish. It was no accident that church parade marched proudly it front of the houses that were the corner stone of the congregation.
But back to the house known as Wayside. Many years later, on one of my trips home from Canada, to take care of my parents, my dad informed me of the great Canadian hero that had spent his final days in Wayside, and was in fact buried in St. James’s churchyard. Well, he had originally been buried there but his body had been exhumed and flown to Woodstock, Ontario where it was re-entombed. His name was Joseph Whiteside Boyle. I had never heard of the man, so I researched his history and was flabbergasted to discover his life story and heroics. His living quarters had been my Sunday school room! I felt he was a neighbor as well, although this one more ghostly than real.
Mr. Boyle’s connection via the graveyard, a place where I played tag growing up, was not the only other connection to my new country of Canada. There buried in the hallowed ground were seventeen members of the Canadian army who had died during the First World War. Many of them were from Newfoundland. (More accurately, those from “the rock” were then members of the British army as Newfoundland did not join Canadian confederation till 1949.) Their final resting place of St. James’s churchyard came about because during the Great War the Lodge in nearby Bushy Park was converted into a hospital for Canadian troops. And these seventeen did not survive their wounds and were buried here. Again, something I only discovered on my pilgrimages home, and, by way of representing Canada, I visited their graves to pay my respects.
The living connection to the army in St. James’s Road was the Fisher family. They lived next to Wayside. Mr. Fisher had been a Colonel in the British Army (tank regiment I think) and his son followed in father’s footsteps. The whole street was proud to have such a distinguished neighbor. Their daughter, Wendy, was very close to our family and was my tutor when I was about eight years old. It was a time when my parents were anxious for me to pass the preparatory exam into the respected grammar school Latymer Upper and so hired Wendy to improve my skills. It worked. At nine years of age I joined the prep school and each morning I walked down St. James’s Road, along Windmill Road, to the High Street to catch the 267 bus into Hammersmith.
Next to the vicarage were the Warders. I can’t remember exactly what Mr. and Mrs. Warder did, but they were incredibly well-respected. Their daughter Jenny baby sat our brood, and she became godmother to my young sister. The family bond was so strong that recently my sister visited Jenny, who is now in her seventies, and the two talked about old times. My sister mentioned that I had written a history of Murree House. I then received an email asking for a copy to be forwarded to Jenny which I did. The thank you note in response was the first communication I had had with Jenny in over fifty years. What was also special were some of the remembrances that Jenny alluded to that, to some degree, triggered this stream of vivid recalls; such as Bunty our boxer dog, whose sad face is still clear in my mind. Like all boxer dogs she was always guilty of slobbering, but she was so loveable you just wiped away the spittle and allowed her head to rest on your lap. I remember when her body became sore with raw tumours and the whispering around the dinner table was that she would have to be “put down”. I was heartbroken and raced home every day after junior school to make sure she was still alive. On the day that the visit to the vet was planned I was especially sad. When I returned from school I entered the house thinking I would never see her again, but when I went to my bedroom there was the old girl on the bed. I was so happy, and threw my arms around her neck to hug her. The visit to the vet had been cancelled by a day or two. But of course the end had to come.
Jenny also mentioned in her email our toy “station wagon”, a remembrance so small it had almost slipped through the net of memory, yet we spent many an hour playing with the toy vehicle. It was a well-built wooden contraption with thick black tyres and a metal rod with a squashed looped at one end that allowed the wagon to be pulled with authority. I think it was painted red. As kids we would ride in the wagon and adults, like Jenny, would pull us along much to our young delight. I’m sure that more than a few times we graduated from the back garden to St. James’s Road so the grown up could get “a head of steam” on a straight path. The wagon also doubled as a work vehicle and heavy loads could be transported to help my dad with his gardening projects.
My eldest brother Waynne had a good friend Mick, who lived just two streets over. When I was about six Mick came to live with us before he joined the Royal Navy at fifteen. My brothers and I took the toy “station wagon” down to Mick’s house, loaded it up with his few personal possessions and then pulled the vehicle back along Windmill Road, then turned on St. James’s and onward to Murree House. There we unloaded his gear like real furniture removers and carried it up to the stairs to Mick’s temporary new bedroom. That Christmas, his last before signing away ten years of his life to serve the country, he bought white plastic cowboy hats that we all wore at the holiday dinner table. Mick became another brother to us children, and another son to my parents. He and his wife still visit them in the care home.
Christmas was a joyous time in Murree House. It was my mom’s favourite time and she began planning, sorting, wrapping months before the holiday. Those preparations included sending out hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cards to friends and acquaintances around the world that they had met on their many travels. Of course, there was a reciprocal reaction and hundreds and hundreds of cards were pushed through the mail box over the course of the weeks leading up to the holiday. The postman would joke about the quantity, and breadth, of the correspondence. Parcels also arrived. With five children in the house the presents were piled high under the tall tree. In those early years my parents invited all the neighbours to come by for a glass of sherry Christmas morning (many of them had no small children making a visit to our house easier) and the living room would be crowded with fifty or so people all making small talk. As kids we were expected to act as young hosts and our job was to offer drink re-fills and cigarettes from stylish boxes. We also had to empty the many ashtrays which filled quickly.
One of the people who we “adopted” over Christmas was Peggy Burgess. She was the large and lovable woman who was the warden of Walton Lodge. This was a giant of a house, with many rooms, that was owned by the local council and was directly opposite Murree House on the other side of the street. It was the residence of teenage girls who were in care of the council for various reasons. Peggy would visit our home over Christmas when most of her female charges were away with members of their fragmented families. Peggy would appear with her large chatelaine around her belted waist, the many keys jangling as she walked. She had a riotous laugh and was a lot of fun (particularly after a couple of glasses of sherry), but I’m sure she could lower the boom in a hurry when the girls got out of line. Some of those girls ended up dating my older brothers over the years and became close to the family even when those relationships ran their course.
November the 5th – Guy Fawkes Night when the colours and loud bangs of fireworks filled the air was also another neighbor filled event. A large bonfire was built at the bottom of the our garden and a stuffed “guy” was burnt. This was symbolic of the time Mr. Fawkes tried to blow up the English parliament back in the seventeenth century. He was caught and executed and the burning was celebration of that act. Today, we might praise “the guy” as a hero. I digress. What the occasion allowed was another invitation to the neighbours to visit our house and venture out to the back garden and witness the fireworks, and the flames, and the enjoyment of tribes of young people getting up to mischief with gunpowder. Luckily, there were not too many injuries. Today, the experience is far more controlled in communities if not completely outlawed.
I have no understanding why these assorted memories have stayed with me. They are not tangible; they have no real importance except as people who crossed my path of life. Many of the people concerned have since passed. But to recall them, even for a moment, honours not only them, but another time and another place, when somebody held open the garden gate and I stepped through.